The Rise of Zebra Companies: A Sustainable Path to Profit

Or: How I waded through the jungle of corporate jargon and learned to love a striped donkey.

First published in “Pulse of Asia: Summer Edition of 2023” a 1-Stop Asia publication. 

In the first week of June, I had the good fortune to be at the opening of an exhibition at the Airborne Museum at Hartenstein in the Netherlands. This is a World War II museum, focusing on Operation Market Garden – a failed effort to clear a path through the Netherlands after D-Day and speed up the allied advance on Germany. The film “A Bridge Too Far” is probably the most famous retelling. Over the past few years, Ludejo has partnered with the Airborne Museum to produce the audio for their exhibitions. 

The exhibition “Fled to Fight” sheds light on a lesser-known chapter of the history of World War II, focusing on the remarkable stories of twenty-one Jewish Germans and Austrians, all refugees, who were part of the British 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden in September 1944.    

The exhibition was opened by Colonel Rabbi Menachem Sebbag (Chief Jewish Chaplain at the Ministry of Defence in the Netherlands). In his opening speech, Colonel Sebbag quoted from scripture; “King Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 7: ’a name is more beautiful than the best perfume.’” 

He explained that in our lives we are given many names. 

The name you are given at birth. The many names we gather throughout our lives. Writer. Manager. Migrant. The titles and roles we grow into or are thrust upon us. They all have meaning and significance. But they fade.  

Corporate Social Responsibility in the (jaded) digital age

There’s a cynical part of me that becomes suspicious whenever I hear anyone talk about corporate social responsibility (CSR). Talk is cheap. During my time at university, we came to understand it as a public relations tool used by multinationals for generating positive press, in an attempt to offset the well-deserved heaps of negative attention they were receiving.

So often, when I witness companies allegedly ‘taking a lead’ on social issues and showcasing how much they supposedly care, a little alarm bell starts ringing in my head, urging me to call out “bullshit”. We live in a world that has grown jaded on practices of greenwashing and sportswashing

I’m sure many of you can relate to this sentiment.

In this article I’m going to explain what a ‘zebra company’ is, why it has gained prominence in the realm of corporate social responsibility, and why the practice of naming business concepts after exotic (and mythical) animals is en vogue (and doesn’t really matter). 

Names are but labels for the convenience of mankind

As a species, we find it easier to quantify concepts and understand phenomena if we can give them a name. Assigning a name to something allows for more effective identification and communication. By a concept with a name, we can establish a shared understanding and foster discussions surrounding it.

There have been countless companies, business divisions and economics theories that were named after animals. From Fox News, RedBull and Jaguar to the ‘Butterfly Effect’, the ‘Elephant Curve’, and the ‘Hawk-Dove Theory’. 

Last year, when we relaunched our website at Ludejo, it included a page titled “Ludejo is a Zebra Company”. 

But what on earth is a ‘zebra company’? 

Metaphors and analogies are key weapons in the marketer’s arsenal

My immediate reaction was to jump on Google and search for ‘zebra business analogy.’ It might be weird to go directly to ’analogy‘, but I wanted to know if there is a good story in there that we could link to. My background is in marketing. In my head, a zebra is just a striped donkey. 

The first example I found wasn’t encouraging. 

A book written by a couple of ‘business bros’ in the US contained an analogy that compared salespeople to lions in search of zebras to survive. Not great. I’m not sure if I would like to be a zebra in that situation.

So I trudged back to Google and searched for ‘zebra metaphor’. 

In the late 1940s, Dr Theodore Woodward, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the US, coined a phrase: 

“When you hear hoofbeats, look for horses, not zebras.”

When diagnosing a patient’s symptoms, Dr Woodward wanted to hammer home a simple point: common ailments should be regarded as more probable than rare ones. 

Again, this didn’t do much to help me understand, let alone sell the concept of Ludejo being a ‘Zebra company.’

I mentioned this to a friend in Ireland, and she replied “aww… I prefer giraffes”. 

The problem with adopting a term from American corporate parlance is that without context it doesn’t make much sense. So, let’s add a little context. 

What is a Zebra company? 

In recent years, the business landscape has witnessed the emergence of a new breed of companies that prioritise purpose alongside profit. These companies, known as ‘Zebra companies,’ strive to balance social impact with financial success, challenging the traditional profit-driven model. The concept of Zebra companies emerged as a response to the dominance and ‘move-fast-and-break-things’ mentality of so-called ‘Unicorn‘ companies*. 

A pair of blurry unicorns charge through the rising dust at a static, calm, zebra. The Ludejo heart icon rises in the distance

A zebra company is both black and white – it is both profitable and works to improve society. In this way, zebra companies are defined as having a ‘double bottom line.’ Unicorns often focus on achieving a billion-dollar valuation, regardless of the cost. Zebras, on the other hand, measure their success by a wide variety of factors, including social impact, sustainability, and community engagement. Zebras also prioritise long-term growth over short-term gains.

That made some sense to me. Using zebras for analogies about black and white, profit and purpose helped me come to terms with what I felt was a stretched visual association. 

Malon Hamoen (the founder and CEO of Ludejo) has employed a simple mnemonic device: The 6 P’s of a Zebra Company

* A unicorn company is a privately held startup company with a valuation of over $1 billion.

Zebra vs Unicon companies

The 6 P’s of a Zebra Company

  • Person

Every team member is equally important. Roles are less defined, and people can choose for ​themselves in what direction they want to grow and how they want to deploy their talents and skills.

  • People

What impact do we have on society? Can we contribute to a more positive world, in which more people get equal opportunities? We are happy to do so! For example, we (Ludejo) do not work for the ​military-industrial sector​.

  • Planet

We do the best we can to preserve this planet and handle it with due care. We do not work for large-scale polluters and take the train as much as possible when travelling abroad. Ecosystems and the importance of cooperative efforts to preserve them, along with finding sustainable solutions, are practical values that we hold dear.

  • Purpose

Ludejo was founded on the basis of good intentions. As a zebra company, we prioritise creating long-term added value rather than simply responding to short-term effects. We strive to align our intentions as closely as possible with the impact we make.

  • Prosperity

Making a profit is not the primary objective; it is merely a means for achieving sustainable goals. We invest part of our profit in charitable, sustainable, social objectives. We are financially independent, which enables us to take autonomous decisions about the allocation of our profit.

  • Partnership

The last ‘P’ stands for Partnership. Zebras are gregarious animals, and similarly, we recognize the power of collaboration and actively seek partnerships with other zebras to achieve shared objectives.

Seeing the word ’gregarious‘ written out led me down another wormhole. I had to look up the word to make sure I was using it correctly. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “The origin of gregarious is from the Latin noun grex, meaning ‘herd‘ or ‘flock’. Then I did a quick check back on Google: “What is the collective noun for Zebra?” A dazzle!

A dazzle of zebra**

Now that’s a noun I can work with! 

“A name is more beautiful than the best perfume.” 

In his opening speech for the exhibition “Fled to Fight”, Colonel Rabbi Menachem Sebbag thanked the museum curators for bringing the remarkable stories of twenty-one Jewish Germans and Austrians back to life. For honouring their memory. He finished by pointing out that names fade. Ranks fade. Titles fade. “A name is more beautiful than the best perfume.”

Essentially, the phrase emphasises the power and importance of a name as a reflection of a person’s essence, reputation and legacy, highlighting its intangible beauty that surpasses the appeal of any tangible or sensory experiences, such as the pleasing scent of perfume, which lingers once a person has left a room.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you call yourself a zebra, or a unicorn, or a striped donkey. The name is not important. What matters is your essence, reputation, and legacy. You can’t greenwash that. 


Create. Convert. Connect.


** A herd or a zeal are probably more common collective nouns for Zebras… but less fun. 

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